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7

Religion

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Rabbis and Prayer Houses

The Ozarow rabbi, Reuven Epstein, a descendant of one of the great rabbinic dynasties of Poland, was an excellent Talmudist. During the sessions of the rabbinic tribunal, everyone would appreciate the way he managed to reconcile his judgments with the code of the Mishna.

One day a quarrel broke out between the shoemakers' guild and the tailors' guild. The dispute quickly degenerated into a brawl and the police lost no time in intervening. The matter was brought before the local court. Rabbi Reuven Epstein appeared before the magistrate to testify. It was a nice dilemma! How could one Jew testify against another Jew? To minimize the problem, the rabbi pronounced: “Shoemakers and tailors aren't nice people.” Which the shoemakers' lawyer took to mean: “Shoemakers! Tailors aren't nice people.” A subtle distinction. In the end the entire matter died down, but the saying gained wide currency in the region.

Rabbi Reuven Epstein died in the summer of 1940. The commandant of the German unit in place in Ozarow authorized a funeral which the Jewish population could attend. The cortege got under way flanked by members of the Judenrat, and on the roofs of each of the Lustig and Lesniewski houses, a soldier was on guard to prevent other German soldiers, unaware of the ceremony, from firing on the crowd.

Rabbi Reuven's son, Rabbi Yechiel Epstein — already married and the father of two children — succeeded him as rabbi of Ozarow under difficult conditions, the occupation and the ghetto. Two years later, in September 1942, the mass deportations began. Chana (Chantche), Rabbi Reuven's daughter, was interned in the camp at Skarzysko.

According to Polish witnesses, Rabbi Yechiel Epstein died in the course of the liquidation of the Ozarow ghetto in October 1942. He probably lies in the common grave of the 120 victims executed in the Ozarow cemetery. After the tragedy Chana lacked the strength to resist further. She left us at the age of twenty.

Rabbi Hersh Epstein belonged to the same line as Rabbi Reuven, but his role remained secondary. Since the organized community didn't subsidize him, he recruited his followers among the merchants, craftsmen and other respectable people from the post office district.

Rabbi Chaskiel Taub lived on the market square. He too received no subsidies from the community, but his existence hardly compared with Rabbi Hersh's. He was supported by the devout from Modjec, who were

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oza149.jpg
Reb Reuven Epstein, the Grand Rabbi of Ozarow,
deceased in 1940

 

both more numerous and more affluent. They were famous throughout Poland. It was said that they knew the most beautiful chassidic melodies, and that every year they celebrated the glory of their rabbi with a new song. Some of the most important families of Ozarow formed part of his congregation: those of Mendel Eidelstein, Mordechai Birencveig (the ritual circumciser of Ozarow), the Weinrybs, the Cukiermans, the family of Chaim-Meyer Goldblum (whom we called the “Spivoks” or singers), and others still. Rabbi Chaskiel Taub died during the summer of 1939, leaving a daughter Perele, the wife of a young rabbi who had just been appointed in Zawiechost.

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After the liberation of the Zawiechost ghetto, I stuck close by this young rabbi Moishe, the son-in-law of Rabbi Chaskiel, at the camp of Skarzysko. Our paths stayed the same until April 1945. Upon our arrival at the camp in Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, Rabbi Moishe was so weak that he couldn't step down from the rail car. We carried him off on a stretcher. I drew near....His half-closed eyes seemed to be looking at me, but already he didn't recognize me. He died 15 days before we were liberated.

Reb Shachne Fryd was one of Ozarow's notables, a well-regarded dealer in construction lumber. He kept his house, with its own Sefer- Torah, permanently available for worship. The devout would gather there on Sabbath and on holy days.

Reb Yossele Mintz was only a blacksmith. Yet, he possessed all the qualities which would have made him a worthy rabbi. He devoted most of his time to study, while his wife managed his business. The most religious Jews frequented his prayer house. His son-in-law Nuta Halpern was the first Ozarower to represent the interests of a cooperative bank.

There was also a prayer house in the Adler enclave. The Sefer-Torah went back to my great-grandfather Hillel and was handed down from generation to generation. It had a place of honour in the home of my grandfather Shloime, then in that of my father Shmuel, the house of my birth.

When my father died in 1921, the Torah went back to my grandmother's house. Later the Torah found its way to Reb Itche Weinberg, the oil presser, since his shop had more room for worshippers.

The prayer house of Hershel Niskier, the son of Meyer the Soldier, began with the Sefer-Torah of his sister Raizel. All of the faithful of the Tcherkaski-Hoif would gather in his shoe repair store, which was set up for the occasion. Raizel was well-regarded by all these devout people, as well as by all the families of the lane that Shyale the Shoemaker lived on.

The parents of the children who attended the Yavne School organized their own prayer house at Kopel Orenstein's. Practically all of them belonged to the Mizrachi Zionist movement, or were at least sympathizers.

To all of these places of worship we have to of course add the Main Synagogue of Ozarow where we celebrated the Sabbath and all the services on holy days. On certain exceptional occasions, such as that of the national ceremony of the 11th of November, special services were also

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conducted there. In 1935, for example, on the occasion of the death of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the Jewish community of Ozarow gathered for a memorial service attended by a delegation from the town administration led by Mayor Adamski, Kabacinski, the town clerk, as well as the local police chief.

* * *

We should note that in Ozarow there were three important rabbis, a synagogue, a temple and five prayer houses. The town also had another religious characteristic: a wire went around the town. If it remained intact, the town was like a citadel, which would permit the religious Jews to carry about objects, such as a talith, on the Sabbath. This cable was regularly inspected.

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Sabbath Preparations in Ozarow

Everyone knew that when Shabbos approached, it would not be a day like the others. It was a matter of marking the difference between daily life and the sanctity of that day. Even the poorest people did not depart from the tradition and tried to observe the day in a dignified manner.

We relied on communal solidarity to allow this to happen. On Friday afternoon certain charitable women would knock on doors to collect egg rolls and bread for distribution to the poorest families. Among these women was Perel Youkef's, whom we named the “Mother of the Poor”. But the housewives had already been hard at work since Thursday. The kitchens exhaled the pleasant aroma of baking cholents. The meat slowly stewed while the women peeled the potatoes which they would roast in the baking oven for Saturday's mid-day meal. And what a meal it was! Apart from the delicious cholent you could savour the “dipine kishke” — a stuffed casing garnished with pearl barley and fine slices of potato.

Then came the moment to light the Sabbath candles. The mistress of the house would recite the traditional blessing. Night came, and after the meal interspersed with the “zemiroth” or traditional Sabbath hymns, the “Shabbos goy” came to put out the lights. As his name would indicate, this was a Catholic invited to perform tasks forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath. In his fashion, he too played his part in the observance of the holy day. During the winter, for instance, it was he who came around on Saturday morning to light the oven which would heat the entire house, and then he would show up several times more during the day to make sure that the heat was running well. On his last visit, he would receive a large portion of challe, according to custom. He would thank everyone present and wish them, in Yiddish, if you please, “a gut'n Shabbos”, or good Sabbath. On Monday he would return to pick up his salary. There were a few men who performed this function in Ozarow, and almost all of them expressed themselves very well in Yiddish.

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Purim in Ozarow

The festival of Purim coincided with the end of the severe cold. Under the effect of the reborn sun, the snow accumulated all winter began to melt little by little. This caused our village, tucked into the space between a hill to the north and a stream to the south, to be crossed by sudden floods. The waves became so big that to cross the Main Street it was necessary to quickly lay down big stones and planks in the middle of the road as an improvised bridge. The carters would help you in getting from one side to the other. You might have thought you were in Venice!

This lasted for more than a week, during which we lived with our feet in water, but in spite of everything the situation had several good aspects. Thus, with the aid of the flows, we were able to get rid of the straw mattresses and other rubbish which had accumulated at the backs of the courtyards during the winter. Using heavy rocks to weigh them down, we immersed bread boards and rolling pins to clean them better for the coming of Passover. So in crossing our village, the water accomplished a kind of purification.

We can't speak of the joys of Purim in Ozarow without recalling the name of the great Waksman family, or the “Nosyks”, as everyone nicknamed them. They lived in the Teherkask neighbourhood, between Wysoka Street and the western edge of town, where they worked as shoemakers. Occasionally, they also worked as pavers, and it's thanks to the “Nosyks” that we had squares and lanes that were more or less passable in our village. But their fame was mostly due to their being a widely admired group of singers and dancers. And at Purim everyone vied for them. We loved their Yiddish narrations, mixed with pungent Polish and Russian expressions, and their clothes turned inside out for the occasion, their gaudy coloured masks and their songs which everyone took up in chorus.

Purim was synonymous with a traditional religious holiday, a joyous atmosphere and popular celebration. Bands of children went about distributing gifts to their parents and in-laws, to friends, to rabbis, to the synagogue custodian....Then came the reading of the Megilah of Queen Esther and in particular the chapters where the praises of the beauty of the Queen were sung, and we remembered Ahasuerus and Mordechai.

And what a tumult the children's noisemakers made to drown out the name of the wicked Haman!

All that vanished, like the melting snow flowing through the alleys....

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Meyer the Soldier and his Sefer-Torah

To enter the house of Mr. Wronski, the healer, on Kolejowa Street, you climbed two small steps. Then you would see in a corner an old Jewish man, on whose wrinkled face grew a wispy goatee. Anyone who passed by would stop to exchange a few words with this little man who had given 25 years of his life in the service of Czar Nicholas of Russia. He even inspired respect among the Catholics of Ozarow who would pause to greet “Panye Meyer”.

We called him “Meyer the Soldier”. It was as if under the spell of his anecdotes we were part of his division on its forced march to Port Arthur in the far reaches of the Orient to fight the Japanese foe. Of course, there was a different version of the same events told by Shloime-Isaac Cukierman who was part of the same squadron. According to him, by the time they reached the Pacific coast, the Russo-Japanese War was already over.

We knew that Meyer the Soldier had been a crack rifleman in an elite unit! He told us of his participation in the events of the first Russian Revolution, in 1905, and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 which plunged the entire empire into chaos, which he, Meyer, had been able to escape by a pure miracle...

Old Meyer was taken care of by his daughter Raizel, who lived alone, without children, and who looked after her father with much affection and pride. After all, Meyer was a veteran of all the wars, a glorious witness to History whom destiny had separated from her for a quarter of a century.

The strangest rumours circulated about Raizel. The cruelest was that her membership in the fair sex was doubtful. Whatever the case, she earned her living honestly selling household linens. Thanks to her wise management, she had a nice nest egg put away, and she had a reputation as an intelligent person with good sense.

Meyer the Soldier had a brother, Shyale the Shoemaker, who lived a little further along the same street in a house that opened on to a vast garden, and who was the father of seven daughters and one son. Every time one of his daughters got married, he would build a little house on a parcel of land in his garden just for her as a present for the newlyweds. Thus, his family was able to expand without getting scattered. The main house on Kolejowa Street, he was keeping for his only son Berele who, when God willing, he died at 120, would recite Kaddish over his grave.

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When Meyer the Soldier died, his brother Shyale invited Raizel to come live with his family. “My garden will easily be big enough to take one more house,” he said. This was a project quickly realized, and Shyale's children were delighted to have Aunt Raizel as their new neighbour.

This part of Kolejowa Street thus came to be, over the years, a real enclave of Shyale's family: Seven daughters married to boys who all came from the same family, and who were also all shoemakers to boot! And then there were their children and grandchildren, who in their turn also married among themselves. The result was that whenever they celebrated a marriage, the whole clan was affected. The musicians would play all night to celebrate, and Shyale, overcome with joy, would look over his little world. If someone passed by his house, he would hail him with, “Come on over! Come! Just look through the window a little while. Now isn't that a beautiful little marriage? A really beautiful little marriage, don't you think?”

But the years went by. Raizel took stock that she wasn't getting any younger and that the time had come for her to accomplish a sacred duty in this world if she wanted to deserve a place in the next. Having amassed some savings with God's help, she decided to use them well, so she paid a scribe to copy a Torah scroll. That would be her legacy to honour her street, her family and all the Jews of Ozarow. And if there was a Paradise, its gates would open to allow her to join her beloved father, Reb Meyer.

Reb Fishel, the chosen scribe, buckled down to his task, and one day in 1933, he announced that the sacred scroll was almost ready. Preparations were then made to celebrate its arrival with appropriate dignity. The little street began to take on an air of gaiety and excitement. Shyale, his sons and his sons-in-law worked feverishly to store away their benches, stools and shoemakers' tools. All day, the women scrubbed their houses, scouring the floors with yellow sand. Everywhere men came and went, sporting their freshly polished boots and their three-quarter coats.

Only Shyale and Naftule, his oldest son-in-law, wore the traditional long coat.

Even the family's neighbours were caught up in a feeling of joyous anticipation. Laibel the Limper stored his crates, and his wife Esther- Dyna already went about in all of her finery, topped off by a pretty white

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bonnet. Meilech the Carpenter cleaned his workshop from top to bottom and sprinkled sawdust over the lane to decorate it.

All of the Jews of Ozarow came to Raizel's house to wish her long life.

The entire throng then gathered for a kiddish of rolls, gefilte fish and sponge cake. The glasses of schnapps clinked, and to general jubilation, the remaining letters of the Torah scroll were painstakingly inscribed. On that day no one was excluded from the celebration. The poor folk of the village and the beggars from the surroundings also took part. Then the musicians arrived to serenade Raizel. They were followed by El'ye Marshalek the entertainer who alternately had all the women laughing and crying.

Soon a procession formed. At its head Rabbi Reuven Epstein cradled the new Torah scroll in his arms. In his footsteps followed Raizel, looking like a young bride under the wedding canopy, led by her two closest female relatives. There followed the disciples of Rabbi Reuven and Rabbi Chaskiel Taub and many other religious men. The rear guard was made up of all the other Jews of Ozarow and strolling musicians.

From the market place the enthusiastic crowd made its way to the synagogue. The Jewish carters, in costume much as they would be for Purim, went up and down the streets on their horses. They wore brightly coloured clothes, big hats and scarlet scarves. In every window of every Jewish house a candle glowed to mark the celebration.

When the procession reached the synagogue square, the dancing began. The women formed a circle around Raizel, and the men danced with the Sefer-Torah as if at a wedding.

Thus the Jews of Ozarow were enriched with a sacred book. Raizel could now leave the world with a feeling of duty done, sure of again seeing her father in Paradise, the father whose name she had memorialized at the bottom of the parchment scroll, not forgetting either that of her Uncle Shyale and of every single neighbour in that narrow muddy back street.

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The False Tzadik

Among the great majority of Jews, scholars have always enjoyed the highest consideration, so as to leave them free of material concerns and allow them to devote themselves totally to the study of Torah and thus come closer to God and His justice. Some famous Talmudists formed veritable scholarly dynasties within various cities of Poland.

To the east of Siedlec, near the Russian border, is the village of Komarno. From far and near, people would come to visit its great “Tzadik” (holy man), whose wisdom could resolve even the thorniest of disputes. His reputation was so great that even Catholics would submit their quarrels to his arbitration. The citizens of Komarno and its environs felt great pride at harbouring so venerated a figure in their midst. Besides this great tzadik, there were other rabbis in Komarno who from time to time would leave the village to wander through Poland to call on their chassidic followers.

And so, one morning a group of such chassidim arrived in Ozarow and alighted in the synagogue square. The rumour quickly spread that it was no less than the brother of the Tzadik of Komarno, accompanied by his entourage, including a beadle and a cantor. Since there were no followers of the Komarno Tzadik in Ozarow, what could have been the reason for such a prestigious delegation?

A certain Yisruel-Wilczycer Zelcer agreed to lodge this fancy group, giving them the use of two rooms in his house, except for the beadle, who was allowed a corner of Yisruel's grocery store. Yisruel and his son Moishe would sleep in a shed attached to the house for the duration of the visit, while Sheindel, his mother, Chaya, his wife, and Dobtche, his daughter, would spend their nights in the attic. These women prepared the meals for the guests, assisted by some neighbours. They couldn't do too much for the brother himself of the great Tzadik of Komarno.

Before you knew it, Yisruel's humble abode had become the most attractive place in Ozarow. A constant stream of people poured in to pray and listen devoutly to the sacred words of the rabbi and his chassidim. Every afternoon, the visiting tzadik granted audiences to whoever needed to confide their misfortunes, their domestic problems or their little intimate dramas. The holy man was revered because it was believed that his blessing would attract divine pity. On arrival, each visitor was received by the beadle who asked him to write his desires down in detail on a sheet of paper. The more numerous these were, the bigger the con-

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tribution expected. After all, the Tzadik and his retinue had to live decently.

Among these visitors was Yankel-Motel Baranowski, who lived five kilometres outside Ozarow. Every day, he wandered the countryside to sell a few pieces of soap or a spool of thread. In exchange, he might receive a chicken or a goose which he would sell when he got back to town. He stated his case: “Noble Tzadik, my oldest daughter Chava, as well as two of her sisters are already married, thanks to Heaven! It's my youngest, D'voira, who worries me. Of course, I can't offer an attractive dowry. Also, I have to admit that she no longer has the charm or beauty of a young girl. Only you can find a way. In any case, she can't remain an old maid!” In addition to this request, Yankel added that if the Tzadik had the power, he should bestow a small but quick fortune on him. That would, after all was said, be the best way of resolving his problems.

The Tzadik of Komarno listened attentively, with his chin in his hands, then read over the little note which Yankel the son of Abraham had scrawled. Slowly and ceremoniously, he lifted his eyes heavenward and reflected for a few minutes — Yankel hardly dared to breathe — then he spoke, inspired by Almighty God: “Toward the end of the month, on a Thursday, the day of reading the Torah, you will go to Gliniany, your village. There you will stop by a well. A peasant will approach you and offer you something of great value which will permit you to offer an honourable dowry to your daughter and to marry her off comfortably.”

Then along came two sisters, the daughters of Meilech the Carpenter. The older, Esther-Dyna, came to complain about her husband.... “It's no life, beloved Tzadik! My lame Laibel makes my life a hell! He spends his nights playing cards and losing money which should be going to feed our children.” Then Tzyvia, sobbing away, had her turn: “Mine is a goodfor- nothing, venerable Tzadik! We have just had our second child. And under the pretext that I never gave him a son, he has upped and left me to return to Tarlow where he came from!”

The Tzadik from Komarno did not lack for solutions: “You, Esther- Dyna, you will go pray over your dead mother-in-law's grave three times a week for a whole month. And don't forget to bring along the children!”

“The soul of the poor woman can get no peace, so tormented is she by her unworthy son's dissolute ways. Thanks to your prayers, she will

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instill remorse in his mind so that he will mend his ways and become the good husband and father you all deserve! As for you Tzyvia, let your father go to Tarlow a month before Passover and bring back your husband. With God's help, your next child could well be a boy this time!”

But the Jews from Tarlow had got word that a fake tzadik from Komarno and his clique were in Ozarow. Tzyvia's husband and a few tough fellows from the region were planning to launch a raid on Ozarow. He actually had no intention of returning to his wife, but just wanted to punish the scoundrels who had so shamelessly exploited the credulity of these poor folk by invoking the renown of the real Tzadik of Komarno.

The false Tzadik and the false chassidim quickly realized that they could not stay longer in Ozarow without risk of being thrashed. They took to their heels, leaving behind as a farewell present, a shoddy blessing for their host Yisruel Wilczycer and fleeting hopes for all the dupes who had come to consult them.

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El'ye Rebbi

In Ozarow there lived a tailor called El'ye, who was an honest and modest man, as well as a devout Jew. Of course, his faith was not the same as a scholar's, since his slight knowledge did not permit him access to the Talmudic texts. He had only one child, a daughter. “God probably did not want to give me a son,” he would say in resigned acceptance of this divine decision.

Fortunately, his daughter married Paisech, a dream son-in-law, friendly and respectful. He treated Reb El'ye as his own father. Every Shabbos the family would gather around the table, and to El'ye's great joy, the couple gave him many grandchildren.

Reb El'ye bitterly regretted not having been able to follow a slightly advanced course of religious instruction when he was young. Nevertheless, he would seek to talk to Rabbi Hersz on the slightest occasion, and returning home, he could be seen still moving his lips as if he wished to continue the conversation. Curious people would ask him, “El'ye Rebbi, whom are you talking to all by yourself?”

“I'm speaking to the Master of the Universe.”

“And how does He answer you?”

“God doesn't speak to me. He listens! I thank Him for allowing me to wake up alive every morning. I pray for the survival and the welfare of all Jews and that the evil force our enemies use against us be destroyed!”

Such daily evidence of gravity and sincerity of purpose earned El'ye Rebbi a reputation as a wise man, so that everyone would take pleasure in asking his opinion. Never would he reply citing the Mishna; yet the least of his words always conveyed hope.

Every Friday afternoon, he went to the ritual bath where he would meet many of his friends. He never ceased to tell them of the miracles to come which could not fail to happen. On one afternoon, he seemed particularly distracted, completely absorbed by his inner reverie.

A friend asked, “El'ye Rebbi! El'ye Rebbi! Tell us again about one of those miracles you say is going to happen!”

El'ye opened his eyes and stared at his friend as if he were hallucinating. He was white and appeared to be coming from far away. In a strained voice he replied, “Be quiet, you criminal! You have no respect for the Eternal! I can see it .... I can take it in my hands.... I.... I was crushing it like a filthy insect! Oh, how long I have hoped for this moment!”

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“But whom are you talking about, El'ye Rebbi?” asked his friend, by now quite alarmed.

“About Hitler, the enemy of all the Jews, of course! And it's because of you! Yes, because of you that he got away. You interrupted me in my task of salvation!”

And in a voice of bottomless despondency, he added, “Will I ever again be allowed to live a moment like that?”

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Lag Ba'omer

The holiday of the Omer is a celebration of the harvest, lasting from the second day of Passover to the holiday of Shavuoth.

But since the failure of the last attempts at independence during the time of Bar-Kochba, the days of the Omer have been a time of mourning. Only the third day of the Omer (Lag ba'Omer), when the plague that was destroying the Jews miraculously ceased, is a day of joy.

During the period of the Omer it is forbidden to the Jews to rejoice, to cut their hair, to make music or even to get married, except on Lag ba'Omer itself.

On that day, we also celebrate the memory of Rabbi Shimon Bar- Yochai whose tomb is at Merona near Safed in the Galilee. Jews from all over Israel gather in Merona to dance and light candles at the tomb. There are sports and games of all kinds, and bonfires are lit.

In Ozarow, the children would celebrate the holiday by setting off little firecrackers in the woods. These were harmless products contained in little blue paper tubes that were ejected from little spark-making “rockets”, which the children made themselves by attaching the firecrackers to a 25 centimetre string; an old latch key was attached to one end and a nail to the other. At that time you couldn't buy any toy like that. Each cheder pupil would use his imagination to make the strings jump higher.

Some time in 1927 or 1928, a new “Menachel” or principal of the cheder was appointed. He came from Byelo-Russia, where at that time Russian was spoken more than Polish. For Lag ba'Omer, this new Menachel organized a picnic for us in the woods close to Ozarow. He taught us a new song for the occasion which extolled the values of one God for the world. The song was a mixture of Russian and Polish, in the rhythm of a march to accompany our walk to the forest.

Our mothers prepared the day's food for each of us, and we gathered in the synagogue square. With each teacher at the head of his class, we marched in twos down the Main Street, singing our new song. All heads turned to look at us, since such a procession of pupils from the Jewish school was a novelty in Ozarow. At the crossroads near Liberty Square we turned right, up Ostrowiecka Street.

At the outskirts of the village, we came upon a Polish blacksmith who was repairing a cart and shodding his horse. Another blacksmith from another village had just arrived also. Surprised to hear Jewish boys

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singing in Russian, they started to disperse us roughly, accusing the teachers of being Bolsheviks.

The teachers and the Menachel, anxious to avoid a pretext for a pogrom, decided to bring us back to the village. So there was no picnic in the woods, but the holiday took place anyway, with the little string rockets and prayers at the synagogue.

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Halitzah

During the 1930's a marriage was celebrated in the Ozarow synagogue between Itzchak Lerer, a very tall, very thin young man from Lasocin, and his bride Esther, daughter of Yankiel the Redhead — a young woman of ample figure and generous bust. Both came from the same family of ritual slaughterers, but their relationship was distant.

A strange rumour went about the village that they were an accursed couple on whom the evil eye would do its work. Soon after the wedding, Itzchak fell sick and died.

The rumour was thus confirmed and vicious gossips took delight in remarking on the tragic event. According to some, Itzchak was already suffering from his final illness even before getting married. Hadn't he in fact been declared unfit for military service? According to others, Esther was such a stingy housekeeper that she starved him to death.

Esther, now a young widow, found herself in a tragic situation. She had lost her husband at the very threshold of her life as a woman, and nothing could let us imagine that she was pregnant with his child.

In orthodox circles there were heated discussions over the matter. According to strict Jewish law, a woman who lost her husband in the first year of marriage could never be considered a real widow. She was not relieved of her vows and could not hope to ever remarry one day.

For questions so thorny the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Judaic law compiled in the 16th century, was authoritative. After careful scrutiny of the treatise, it was decided that Esther had no claim to the succession of Itzchak Lerer.

In view of allowing her remarriage sooner or later, resort was had to a procedure which would free Esther from her vows. This was the Halitzah.

The two families gathered in a room specially arranged for the occasion in the town where Chil-Yoissef, the older brother of Itzchak, lived. There, Esther had to endure all over again the terrible moments of a funeral ceremony: preparation of the body before burial and reading of passages from the Torah in Itzchak's memory. The poor young woman experienced a mixture of pain and humiliation intended to ensure his eternal happiness.

All the while, she was blindfolded so as not to let her see anyone and to better turn her thoughts to the dear departed.

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Finally, on the order of the older brother (the closest surviving male relative of the deceased, as required by Jewish law), Esther symbolically disrobed by taking off one of her shoes and throwing it in the direction of those in attendance. Everyone scrambled to get out of the way because to be hit by the shoe would presage a terrible misfortune!

The last act of this Halitzah was thus accomplished. From that moment forward Esther, daughter of Yankiel the Redhead, was once more free to marry “according to the laws of Moses and Israel”.

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Reb David Bromberg's Pardon

For Jewish boys of my generation, taking the right road meant going straight from cheder to the Yeshiva.

Little boys and young men would spend their afternoons and evenings studying the Torah and its commentaries. Nothing would give greater joy to parents than to see their son eager to discuss in greater depth with his father or an older brother what he had learned the very same day in school. Everyone had a feeling of being enriched by this constant and fertile dialogue.

Nachme Bromberg, although he was an excellent Talmudist, rejected strict orthodoxy. To wear austere chassidic garb, never to talk to young women, or wait until his parents presented him with a fiancée of their choice, without consulting him first, were all unbearable to him. He could not help feeling that way. No, he was attracted instead by everything that represented a new way of experiencing the world — newspapers, modern books, music. Soon he became active in the Zionist movement. This evolution did not please his father, Reb David, who believed that his beloved son had gone astray. Little by little, their relationship grew increasingly venomous.

The fact that Nachme shaved his beard and refused to attend synagogue regularly was a source of despair to Reb David, who after a while, refused to welcome the errant son to the family table.

This type of situation was not uncommon at that time. In many households, the parents suffered from not seeing their sons transmit the ancestral tradition “l'dor v'dor” — from generation to generation.

Moshke Bromberg, the younger brother of Nachme, was my friend. One winter evening in 1933 I paid him a visit. When he opened the door, he whispered to me worriedly, “Please, go home. I can't tell you right now, but it's a real crisis. Nachme has decided to leave home to go to France!” He told me that his older brother and his father had already not spoken to each other for a long time.

I went home in deep thought, and could not help believing that Nachme was right.

Of course, my grandfather Kopel Melman thought otherwise. The oldest son of Reb David was required to be obedient and to follow tradition.

[Page 167]

The day of Nachme's departure quickly drew near. Father and son would probably never see each other again. Was it possible that they could part without any farewell? Without any reconciliation? It took the last-minute intervention of my Uncle Abraham-Nuta for Reb David to agree to pardon his son and give him his farewell blessing.

 

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Kopel Melman, the author's grandfather, in 1931

[Page 168]

oza168a.jpg
Going away party in 1930 for Edith Birnbaum (standing, right), Canada-bound

 

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Going away party in 1930 for Leah Gryner, headed for France

 

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